Oral Histories

Ed Block

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

Ed Block Biography

Edward M. Block was Senior Vice President -- Public Relations, Advertising and Employee Information for the AT&T Corporation for 12 years until his retirement in 1986. He was responsible for corporate communications during AT&T's historic divestiture of the Bell telephone companies and its expansion into international markets. He also held the additional post of assistant to the chairman of the board from 1980 until his retirement and was a member of the Office of the Chairman.

While at AT&T, Block was a director of AT&T International and AT&T Information Systems. He established the AT&T Foundation and was its first chairman of the board. It was on his initiative that AT&T provided the funding ($10 million a year for five years) to establish the MacNiel-Lehrer News Hour on PBS.

In 1980, PR News chose Block as the Public Relations Professional of the Year. In 1993, he received the lifetime achievement award from Inside PR and also, the Hall of Fame Award of the Arthur W, Page Society. In 1997, he received the Gold Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America. Most recently, he was cited by PR Week as one of the 100 most influential public relations people of the 20th century.

Transcript

Foster: Did you really?

Block: That weekend.

Foster: 4,000

Block: 4,000, so anyway, you know lesson number one if you got a story with that kind of impact, it’s just, you have to find some way to tell the story one time, one place, or you’ll have a train wreck on your hands.

Foster: Exactly.

Block: And we were able to do that.  I think another lesson. you inferred this earlier, but the, the my boss Charles Brown but the whole top management at AT&T and the Board of Directors, what we were able to do was really a credit to the public relations department, not to me personally.  But to the PR department, that we presented a plan to announce that thing to the whole top management, all the CEOs of the Bell companies to our own board of directors and you know thinking back on it later I thought to myself. That’s amazing that no one said you’re not going to bring in an agency to do this or let me tell me that again. I don’t like that you know and blah, blah, blah. They all just said great plan, and that was so.  And the third thing I think, Larry, is well, I did the plan in two days because of the danger of leaks. At least I had an opportunity to think it through. I mean it didn’t come flying in over the transom as it so often happens to chief public relations officers.  That they don’t know until the last minute.  I was in on it from the first minute. That made a huge difference. And we were also able to mobilize not only the chairman of the board as the principle spokespersons but person, but we were fortunate that we had a president, Bill Ellinghaus, you know him well.  And two vice chairs, who were very polished with the news media, and they were good at it.  So I was able to give them the talking points and so in fielding those, and by the way we all lived in our office building through that whole weekend, so it was impressive to a reporter who calls in and we say do you want to talk to Charlie Brown? Hang on a minute. Press the button, he’s on the line.  And Bill Ellinghaus, and what not. So we had four really good authoritative spokesmen and of course all the rest of us ink-stained wretches in the PR department who could, you know could handle whatever came in and we did augment our media relations group by hand picking people elsewhere who might have been on jobs elsewhere in the public relations department, but had plenty of experience. So, we were able to get through that weekend and the last thing I, in anticipating this train wreck or this media frenzy, I wrote an ad, a full page ad to run in the morning papers the next day, all the metropolitan papers in the United States, and I did that for fear that the story would not come out as clearly and as accurately as it did.  And we, we hired different financial print shops in New York City, gave them each a paragraph or two of the ad so no one ever saw the whole ad, and then we had individuals get on airplanes and fly out to the markets and deliver the ad to newspapers.  Well it turned out that the reporters got it right and got it straight and that really was superfluous. The other thing I think we did maybe not everybody who ever listens to this will have the same thing, but in a company that has a lot of different divisions and business units and what not, we, we call the presidents of the Bell companies into New York or New Jersey and I took them through the plant and Howard Trienens took them through the steps in the courthouse. And I asked each of them as soon as we had made the announcement to have their own press conference in their headquarters city, because they had the employees; they were theirs, not ours. They had the customers. They were not AT&T headquarters customers, they were the Bell customers, and but one exception, not one of those CEOs freelanced or made a boo-boo. I sent them a packet by courier the night before with everything they needed for a press conference and they had the conferences at noon the next day, and that helped a lot, because they were talking to their customers. They were talking to their employees, and they were talking to the news media that covered their company. And I think that sometimes we forget to do I don’t know whether it was me who thought of that or somebody else. But sometime we forget, thinking well the whole show is the chairman of the board. Well it’s not.  If you are a big company with a lot of people scattered all over the place, employees and customers, it’s, it’s important to have the person they look to as the head guy, not the chairman of the board of the holding company.

Foster: Let me jump quickly to another subject. Values - the subject of integrity. A responsibility truth telling and give me our view of what is needed in those areas and I know here at the Page Center which is why we’re gathering at Penn State at this time. The Board of the Page Center, trying to figure out how best to carry out our responsibility and to elevate the Page Center to an even higher standard. But give me off the cuff thoughts about values, responsibility, and integrity. What do you think about when you focus on those issues?

Block: Well I’m going to come at that question from a couple different angles. One is that, public relations as a skill set, if you want to call it that has grown enormously. And it has morphed into communications communicator and I think my idea of integrity and values and what not, has to do with the counseling function. Not as the resident Saint, for goodness sakes, but to be in that policy-making loop that includes the communication of policy but also the making of policy.  So, I think from my mind, the big role that the Communications School at Penn State is going to play in locating the Page Center here, is that I think a prestigious academic institution that gives you great leverage, and gives you the right to talk about integrity and ethics.  And so I think that, that the Center here at Penn State, the Page Center, can be enormously influential. Now as to, you know, what is integrity and how you do it and the business we’re all in and that sort of thing which my hope will be the output the “how to’s” will come out of the Page Center as well. But to my mind, it’s, it’s pretty easy to think in terms of, of some old fashioned horse sense. Companies that do right do better. I mean that’s been documented through almost a century now, and it’s not when I say do better meaning their bottom line they make money for the shareholders and they do it consistently which is really important, not in peaks and valleys so that’s kind of a glib way to say it but the ones who do right, do better, but it’s documented. The other thing is there’s some simple rules and they pretty much come out of the Page Principles but they are, you know, other people have said them in other language and using other words. The new hot button, as you know, is transparency. Well that had old-fashioned meanings, but it meant you know, all business in a democratic society, blah, blah, blah, you know. Your customers, your shareholders, your constituencies have a right to get an explanation of what you’re doing when they want an explanation. So you know what’s so magic about that. And yet we have gotten away from it too much, I think, in modern times where the, it’s almost as though slickness of communications will pull you through. You know, whether it’s marketing or whatever. It’s in PR and we know it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You may get away with it for a little while but you know sooner or later you are going to slip on a banana peel if it’s not real. So it’s telling the truth. It’s being upfront with your employees, with your shareholders. Employees by the way, you know this from your J & J days, and I know this. The first people who know that the emperor has no clothes are the employees. And once they decide that, it’s down hill, because they will let that be known to everybody. So if you are a company that employs a lot of people, the transparency thing, the upfront thing really you I think you build it off of your internal, internal communications.

Foster: The person in charge of public relations for the company, the person who has access to the chairman, they are in a wonderful position to be the reminder, to be the keeper of the principles that the company is striving for, right?

Block: Absolutely. And I think a friend of mine by the name of Larry Foster used to talk about that a lot. That the, the chief public relations officer, by whatever title, is the only one in the top echelon of senior management whose job it is to think like the CEO would think. The others whether it’s chief financial officer or chief marketing officer or whatever, are advocates, as they should be of what they’re doing. And you and I know that in some of the discussions, we called it the “office of the chairman” but the executive committee whatever the problem in making bad decisions and opportunity to make good decisions is not a matter that you got a bunch of crooks in the room who all want to do something bad.   It isn’t that.  You are trying to thrash out a strategy, or a decision, or a way to present a decision, and so it’s not people sitting around a table trying to figure out how to get by with something, it’s people advocating different solutions to the same problem from their point of view. And the one person in the room who can be useful to the CEO is the chief public relations officer, because he’s not, he or she is not invested in any of those advocacy positions at all, and also, as you know and I certainly know often times the chairman needs someone in that room who will speak the unspeakable, you know and say you can’t do that. You can’t do that. Okay it’s going to cost us some money to not do that or whatever the implications are, but and the chairman in many cases he knew that all along, he just wanted somebody in the room to say to say it, and then he can say well I agree.